The world of late seems overwhelmingly saturated with awful, heart-wrenching events in local, national and world news. Every day there seems to be negative, scary, and overwhelming information bombarded at the public with intensity. In the modern era, we have access to news and information all day through television, internet and social media, thanks in part to smartphones. While I wouldn’t trade the convenience of carrying access to information in the palm of my hand, I do notice a need to self-regulate and monitor what and how often I expose myself to news related events.
A few mornings ago, I woke to a steady rain on the hitting the roof and wind shaking the screens on the windows, I did not want to get out of bed. I pressed snooze another time, not because of the rain, but because I did not want to start my day and send my children to school. The night before, local news warned of three local school districts in Rhode Island to heighten security and police patrols after receiving letters warning of intended gruesome harm to school children over the next several days. In many of these districts, schools reported upwards of 30-40% of student absences in response to the threats. On this morning, I didn’t want to get out of bed and face the reality of the threats. I felt overwhelmed and anxious starting my day. As I was making breakfast for my daughters, I thought about how do I talk to them about this threat? Do I send them to school? How can I get through this day without losing my mind with worry and fear? How do I figure out what is my mother’s instinct versus what is anxiety and fear?
I began thinking of all of the ways I could cope during this time; I went into psychologist mode-what would I recommend to a client? I found myself making a list of coping strategies that inspired this post. Here is a list of 21 skills and strategies to use when coping with upsetting events and negative information.
1. Provide a stable, loving and supportive home environment. During stressful times, having a home that is loving and safe provides stability and comfort. A stable home also creates a supportive environment to express thoughts, emotions, concerns and learn coping strategies, as well as have fun together. Shortly after Mother Teresa won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she was asked, “What can we do to promote world peace?” She responded, “Go home and love your family.” I have always been so inspired by her comment. By loving and caring for our children and families, we make a difference.
2. Role model healthy coping skills. Children not only learn from what they are taught, but often from what is not said, rather observed. From a young age, children imitate adults and what they see in their world. The same observation occurs with coping skills. How we behave as adults shows our children how to behave. This does not mean you can never show frustration, upset or fear, rather, expressing these emotions in a healthy way encourages your child to do the same. For example, when you are stressed if you snap at family members, yell or slam doors which demonstrates a short emotional fuse, you will show children these are acceptable behaviors to use when stressed. Instead, own your feelings and identify what you need. “Kids, I’m feeling stressed, I need to take a couple of minutes calm down. You can help me by playing in the other room.” Parents can also demonstrate healthy coping skills by using strategies for emotional, physical, cognitive and spiritual self-care.
3. Discuss with your child events in a mindful way taking into consideration developmental age and emotional capacity. One thing I find helpful to keep in mind when stressful events occur, whether local, national or world, is to remember the age and developmental stage of a child. Children while capable of many things intellectually and emotionally see the world through their developmental lens. What we see as adults, is not what they see as children. Depending on your child’s age and direct experience with a distressing event determines if and how you talk with your child. If you would like to read guidelines on how to talk to your child by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, please go here.
4. Focus on Facts. One of the most amazing parts of being human is our ability to think, reason, plan, create and wonder. However, sometimes our amazing brain gets in the way of functioning. The brain that protects us from danger-fight or flight-can get in the way when instead of being aware of real probable danger, we interpret everything as dangerous. Being able to quiet our active minds is essential in coping with modern times. Focus on the facts-what is known versus what could happen. In other words, stay focused on what you know versus imagining various possibilities. The more active your mind with potential scenarios, the more you may notice your fear and anxiety heightens.
5. Limit news coverage. I am all for being aware of current news events. However, constantly watching news during a stressful time is not helpful, especially when the quality is predominantly negative versus positive news stories. Just because we have access to media news coverage 24 hours a day, doesn’t mean we should watch the coverage 24 hours a day. Being informed and aware of current events is fine in proportion. The more anxiety, worry and distress about current events an individual experiences, the more I would encourage limiting exposure to news. For example, watching fifteen to thirty minutes of news coverage a day may be enough to stay informed. Checking the news every hour, watching excess news without little new information provided may not be helpful and often increases anxiety. Also limit social media and text message alerts on your phone or computer so you are not constantly distracted by alerts.
6. Limit ‘What if” Situations. Similar to focusing on the facts, limit thinking about all of the “what ifs” that could happen. Many people hear information and then begin down the path of what ifs? We think about the situation and create thoughts and images of worst case scenarios and possibilities. Instead of focusing on what is known instead of what is possible, we create “what if” scenarios which thereby increases our worry, fears and stress.
7. Limit talking about events when children are present. One way to cope with the distress is to reach out to supportive people in your life. When you talk with your spouse/partner, friends and family about current news events, whether on the phone or in person, do so when your child is not present. Never underestimate the power of a child’s ability to hear something even when you did not intend them to. This also encourages a normal routine free of distractions. Creating a space where you can talk to other adults freely and openly allows one to talk about thoughts and reactions without having to censor information.
8. Focus on Healthy Behaviors. During times of stress, it is important to keep your physical health optimally functioning. Chronic stress and lack of physical well-being can increase the risk of getting sick and ill. Getting enough sleep, eating well, enjoying activities meaningful to you and exercise not only are good health behaviors, they also reduce stress. Physical health is often one of the most overlooked ways to manage stress. Getting enough sleep promotes the ability to use and access healthy coping skills. When a person sleep deprived, it’s harder to use good coping skills.
9. It’s Ok to Limit Negative Conversations. When a distressing event occurs, it is natural to talk with other people about the event. News can be shocking and talking with others helps to process and take in the reality of the situation. However, I am sure you have been in conversations after a news event where you left thinking and feeling worse off. Give yourself permission to limit talking about situations and newsworthy events. Give yourself permission to change the subject, limit the conversation or simply walk away.
10. Repeat a mantra or soothing, meaningful phrase. Keeping your thoughts positive and balanced helps to reduce stress. Find a mantra or meaningful phrase to repeat throughout the day. Perhaps a loved one, friend, or older family member special to you, has a special saying. Take in your loved ones mantra or perhaps you have one already. Some examples are: “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle” (Buddha). “This too shall pass.” “There is always something to be thankful for.” and “Inhale love, exhale gratitude.”
11. Remember to take deep, regulating breaths. When a person is anxious or stressed, one of the first changes in physical functioning is disruptions in breathing. People who are stressed and anxious have irregular and often shallow breathing patterns. If you find yourself or another family member stressed, take a minute and focus on regulating breathing. To do this, start with taking a deep inhalation while counting to three, holding this breath while counting to three, and then exhaling the breath counting to three. Repeat this cycle of three breathing for several minutes. Spending even a couple of minutes throughout the day to ensure you are breathing in a regular way can reduce stress, and increase a physiological calming sensation.
12. Be available to talk with your child. I often hear parents say, “I don’t want to bring it up (news events) and worry my child.” Making the choice to talk with your child about events in the news is a very personal decision. What I have seen as a mom and psychologist, children hear things at school, on the bus and from peers well before parents intend them to, especially as children are older and have more independence. Variables such as your child’s age as well as developmental and emotional functioning will help you decide when and how to talk with your child about current events. If you would like to read guidelines on talking with children about stressful events, please go here.
13. Increase Self-Care. Taking care of your physical, emotional and cognitive health can be beneficial especially during times of stress. When stressed, make sure to get enough sleep, nourish yourself with reasonably healthy food choices and limit/omit alcohol, caffeine and nicotine, chemicals which can increase symptoms of anxiety, sleeplessness and with alcohol, also increase depressive thinking and reduce quality of sleep.
14. If practicing religion-attend religious services, rituals and prayer. Connecting with your religious community through service, ritual and prayer can help reduce stress and increase positive coping.
15. Meditate. Many of the recommendations to cope with stress is to quiet negative thinking and worry. Meditation is a fantastic tool to reduce stress, increase mindfulness and induce a calming physiological response. If you would like to learn how to meditate please go here.
16. Try Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR). PMR is a series of tensing muscle groups in one’s body followed by releasing the tension; the result is feeling more calm and relaxed. If you would like to read how to do PMR please go here.
17. Stay in your routine as much as possible. People are comforted in stressful times by staying in normal routines; this is true especially for children.
18. Trust your Instincts. During times of stress, its hard for most people to figure out the difference between instincts/intuition versus anxiety/fear. When it comes to your child and family, parents often instinctively know what is best. Last week in Rhode Island, many parents kept their children home from school following threats to harm to school children. While not all parents did this, many felt the need to do so. Sometimes we as parents have to trust our instincts with our child. If you are unable to access your instinct because of anxiety, fear or worry, talk to a supportive person in your life to get support and work through those emotions.
19. Seek out positive examples of humanity. When stressful events occur, people often lose hope in others, the world and the future. Work to find acts of kindness, positive stories and seek out positive people in your life.
20. Volunteer. Providing support to others is one way to contribute positively to the world. Volunteering or providing a service to a passion and interest to you or your family can be very helpful to bring positive energy back into the world.
21. Increase family time with fun, bonding activities. During times of stress, one of the most helpful ways to cope is to spend time with those who are important to you in your life. When I am impacted by stressful events, I ask myself-what can I learn from this (event) and what does this (event) remind me about what is important in my life?
I hope this is helpful in assisting you to cope with distressing times. Don’t feel pressured to engage in all of these tasks and skills, rather choose what is meaningful and seems manageable.
© Copyright Dr. Claire Nicogossian 2014